Mike Leigh‘s Mr. Turner (Sony Pictures Classics, 12.19) is a masterfully captured, atmospherically captivating period biopic of J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), the 19th Century genius painter of impressionistic landscapes. Like his 1999 Gilbert and Sullivan film Topsy Turvy, this is another of Leigh’s “portrait of an artist, warts, whims, peculiarities, obsessions and all” films. I was alert and attuned start to finish, but I can’t honestly say I was riveted. Leigh’s basic observation about Turner being a bit of a compulsive, anti-social creep is not exactly novel or startling — I think we all know that gifted types tend to be difficult in various ways. A journalist friend found the film beautiful but flat, “like watching paint dry.” And I frankly couldn’t hear half the dialogue. (Thank God for the French subtitles.) When Spall began speaking at the press conference I said to myself, “Wow, I can understand him so clearly!”

But the performances (particularly Spall’s) are uniformly delicious and Dick Pope‘s cinematography reflects the colors and framings of Turner’s paintings, and the historical details (production design, costumes, etc.) are mesmerizing. You feel you’re really there. Leigh’s orchestration of time-trip authority is immaculate.

Sony Pictures Classics is opening Mr. Turner stateside on December 19th. Cultivated 35-and-olders will come out in strength for the first couple of weekends, but Mr. Turner is more of an exacting study than a compelling drama. It’s essential to see as there’s no such thing as a bad or under-nourishing Mike Leigh film, but it’s much more cerebral than emotional. It impresses but doesn’t really get you deep down.

Here’s how Spall described the essence of the film during the post-screening press conference: “To me, what the film is about is that genius is not always in the most romantic of packages. Most geniuses are strange. They do have conflict within themselves. They are often odd-looking sociopaths. Sometimes they’re charming. This man was kind of kind of simian, kind of ape-like. He was working class but with this amazing soul…he was an autodidact but he had the opportunity to synthesize and assimilate all this genius that was around him…this contradiction between this slightly brutish man with love in his heart but not quite sure where to put it, and this amazing visual genius that he had…it’s quite an interesting thing to investigate.”

Wiki synopsis: “A look at the last quarter century of the great if eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner (Spall). Profoundly affected by the death of his esteemed father, loved by a housekeeper he takes for granted and occasionally exploits sexually, he forms a close relationship with a seaside landlady with whom he eventually lives incognito in Chelsea, where he dies. Throughout all this, Turner travels, paints, stays with the country aristocracy, visits brothels, is a popular if anarchic member of the Royal Academy of Arts, has himself strapped to the mast of a ship so that he can paint a snowstorm, and is both celebrated and reviled by the public and by royalty.”

Here’s a fascinating 2009 article about Turner by the Daily Mail‘s Tony Rennell.

It’s 1:45 pm and I have to catch a 2 pm screening so that’s it for now. Here’s an mp3 of a portion of the press conference.